MUNICH, Germany -- At the Munich Security Conference recently, Ukrainian foreign minister Petro Poroshenko had a clear message: Ukraine is a part of Europe. He stressed that Ukraine is “a big European country” and insisted that plans to move forward on NATO membership “will be successfully implemented.”
In his opening remarks during a panel discussion about the future of European security, Poroshenko mentioned Europe/European thirteen times, the EU ten times, NATO nine times and Euro-Atlantic four times. There were only five mentions of Russia.Ukrainians clearly see their future in Europe. As Newsweek noted, “more than 60 percent of Ukrainians hope one day to join Europe and no longer look to Russia for support and protection.”With Victor Yanukovych in power, pro-European enthusiasm may be toned down slightly, but it will remain alive. While president-elect Yanukovych has been cozy with Moscow in the past, he made pro-European overtures during his campaign because Europe – not Russia – resonates with Ukrainian voters.Ukraine has chosen the West over Russia, and it’s clear why. To their west, Ukrainians see that once-Eastern bloc Poland is now fully integrated into the European Union and boasts a booming economy. Then to the east, there is Russia, a sickly state with a weak economy and a bleak future.Meanwhile the West has yet to make its choice about Ukraine. There is a sense that many Europeans secretly breathed a sigh of relief at Yanukovych’s victory, hoping that Ukraine under his leadership would stop pestering them about EU membership.Europe has never managed to send a clear signal in response to Ukraine’s hopes of joining the European community. Instead, Brussels has left Ukraine drifting. And without the carrot of EU membership, the heroes of the Orange Revolution had little incentive to battle corruption and tackle reforms.Disappointed voters turned on their former hero, President Victor Yushchenko, and now they’ve rejected Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, too.But now is not the time for the U.S. and Europe to turn their backs on Ukraine. Just the opposite. This election was a wake-up call. The West needs to get its act together. Ukraine is trying its best to develop Western values, but in order to do so it needs steadfast Western partners.“The way forward is to stand behind our principles. The EU is a strong force of change and NATO is also,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington.He’s right. The West could offer powerful incentives to Ukraine that would encourage reform. For example, the EU should change visa restrictions that keep Ukrainians locked up in their country.However, it’s clear Europe won’t handle Ukraine on its own. The U.S. has to get more involved. Shortsighted Europe has continued to snub Kiev, like when Germany didn’t invite Ukraine to the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.Of course, one of the big factors driving Europe’s ambivalence on Ukraine is Russia’s gas. Countries like Germany have been happy to sell Ukraine down the river – as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy did in Bucharest when they torpedoed U.S. President George W. Bush’s plans to expand NATO – to avoid upsetting the Russians.In this regard, Yanukovych as president could prove helpful because Moscow isn’t scared of him. The Kremlin might not freak out at the thought of Yanukovych working with Western leaders.So the U.S. and Europe should move forward and prove they are serious about Ukraine by drawing up a clear road map for Ukrainian membership in the EU as well as NATO.And the West should stop viewing Ukraine as a charity case. The country has tremendous potential. Ukraine could be the next Poland if the U.S. and Europe gave it adequate support and attention.During a recent trip to Lviv, one could be struck by the city’s raw energy, and reassured that the take-charge attitude that fueled the 2004 democratic Orange Revolution has not been lost.Oleksandr Lytvynov, a university student, proudly said that in Ukraine and across Central Europe, “many young people want to change their lives, change their place in the world.” He hopes to earn a masters degree in Western Europe and then return to Ukraine to help his country.Oleh Berezyuk, the young and energetic director of the Lviv mayor’s office, said Ukraine is experiencing a “great generational shift.” He said that young Ukrainians “have drive” and are “full of energy, potential and an urge to live a better life.”The spirit of the Orange Revolution is alive and well. A new generation of Ukrainians is prepared to take up the call, and they’re knocking on the West’s door. The West should open it and welcome them in.